After less than two years in office, Jeff Merkley has shown himself willing to stand up not just to Republicans, but also members of his own party when they make unacceptable concessions to Big Oil. This week Merkley came out strong for clean energy again by joining at least two other US senators in criticizing Hillary’s Clinton suggestion that as head of the State Department she is “inclined” to approve permits for a dirty cross-border oil pipeline.
According to Associated Press, Clinton has said she would likely approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta all the way down to Texas. If you’re not familiar with the nature of tar sands oil, it is one of the dirtiest fuels produced anywhere in the world. Extracting petroleum from the tar sands requires energy inputs which add significantly to the fuel’s carbon footprint. According to some of the more conservative estimates, the lifecycle carbon footprint of oil from the tar sands is approximately 20% greater than that of light crude oil.
The Keystone XL pipeline represents a major threat to the nation’s clean energy future. It would pump 1.1 million barrels of extra-dirty oil into the US each day, nullifying some of the reductions in carbon emissions that will result from stricter fuel efficiency standards. If the federal government is serious about embracing a future powered by clean energy, the Keystone XL pipeline takes us in exactly the wrong direction. And this brings me to the importance of Merkley’s comments.
Associated Press quotes Merkley saying he is “deeply concerned” about the carbon footprint of tar sands oil and the long term impacts of a new oil pipeline. Merkley joined both Nebraska’s senators—Democrat Ben Nelson and Republican Mike Johanns—in criticizing Clinton’s likely approval of the pipeline. But while Nebraska stands to be transected by Keystone XL, Oregon will not be immediately impacted by the construction. This suggests Merkley is focused on the bigger picture: not just the local effects of a new oil pipeline, but the impact Keystone XL would have on broader US energy policy.
Should a rupture in the oil pipeline occur, environmental impacts could include pollution of the Heartland’s Ogallala Aquifer. I’d hope this would be reason enough for Secretary Clinton to think twice about giving her seal of approval, but it’s also true that as long as objections come mainly from states along the pipeline’s route, many will dismiss them as NIMBY concerns. To truly stop this project, lawmakers from other parts of the country need to speak up.
By adding his voice to the dialogue, Senator Merkley has shown this is about more than the local impacts of an oil pipeline: it’s about the direction we want US energy policy to take. Do we really want to become more and more dependent on one of the world’s dirtiest fuels? Or do we as a nation have the courage to say no to oil altogether and invest in renewable energy sources?
It’s a question that urgently needs to be answered, and one I’m glad Jeff Merkley has the courage to ask.